WaPo: Emails show how US military officers dealt with false missile alert

After a false missile threat alert from Hawaii’s government, top US senior military officers began discussing how to better handle such a threat if it were real, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post.

On Saturday, January 13, an emergency alert notification was sent out to Hawaii, warning of an imminent ballistic missile threat. Thirty-eight minutes later, a second emergency alert was sent to phones, confirming it was a false alarm.

“We should take full advantage of this unforced error by the State of Hawaii,” the chief of US Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, wrote in one of several emails the Post obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and released Saturday.

The emails show efforts by top military officers to review procedures after the false alarm exposed faults in Hawaii’s emergency notification system.

Harris emailed US Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy asking for more information about how Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam handled the ballistic missile threat, even though it was a false alarm.

“Just for my education and edification, when the Big Voice went off at Pearl Harbor-Hickam this morning, there was no indication that this was a drill; in fact just the opposite,” Harris wrote, using military jargon for a loudspeaker on military bases. “So, what happens on the flight line, and what message, if any was passed to aircraft in the air?”

Harris was informed that air-traffic controllers did not pass warnings of incoming ballistic missiles to aircraft or hold any aircraft on the ground.

“I think we’re going to learn a lot here. For ~ 25-30 minutes, this was a real alert, mistaken though it was,” Harris wrote.

The US Pacific Command leader also directed a similar question to the deputy commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Rear Adm. Matthew J. Carter: What do ships and submarines do in the case of a ballistic missile alert?

“We’ll dig into it, Sir. We plan on doing a deep dive on this event to look into how best to notify military families; map out and survey shelters on our installations, etc,” Carter responded.

The emails also reveal how the senior military leaders thought Hawaii handled the situation.

“Apparently, they were getting ready to do a drill when the ‘drill’ part was lost in translation. Totally uncoordinated with us of course,” Harris told Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford an hour after the initial alert, The Washington Post reported.

According to the emails, Harris said he’s “sure there are lessons learned where we can improve,” but that there’s “a lot of explaining by the State of Hawaii to do.”

Harris’ email was forwarded to senior Pacific Command staff members, sparking a conversation among recipients about what state officials could improve.

A redacted email from Harris’ deputy director for intelligence argued that Hawaii “has a lot more than the alert system to work on,” according to The Washington Post.

Harris’ chief of staff, Air Force Maj. Gen. Kevin Schneider, wrote that there is “lots of work to be done on the communications piece.”